This post is an excerpt from my upcoming paper on adaptive leadership and advancing racial equity in transit organizations.
There are fluid current discussions on the detrimental effects of structural and institutional racism exists at all levels in many Canadian public sector organizations. One example has been within transit organizations. Transit agencies are still managing and operating past decisions that have racism embedded in them where they have inherited past decisions, entrenched systems and attitudes. This is the part of the nervousness that Susan Gooden spoke about and something I mentioned in one of my previous posts.
Up until recently, the executive leadership and Board of Directors at the Toronto Transit Commission have been predominantly White males. The recent hire of Keisha Campbell as the agency’s first Chief Diversity Officer and Fenton Jagdeo as a TTC board member created strides in addressing anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism from a leadership level to where it all starts. Leaders using an adaptive leadership framework would be the most effective in doing this.
Operationalizing organizational change and development as well as race are necessary components of the work towards racial equity. Using an adaptive leadership framework with a racial equity lens is critical to this work. Adaptive leadership is defined as Ronald Heifetz as an activity and not a set of personality characteristics. The concept of adaptive leadership has been used in non-profit agencies, health and education sectors but never in the public sector. The core activity for leadership is mobilizing groups and individuals to address adaptive challenges and helping create conditions that make adaptive work possible. It then becomes a commitment from the organization to ensure that all team members are treated equitably, feel a sense of belonging and have an adequate amount of resources – financial and human – for individuals to reach their full potential.
Technical challenges are those problems in the workplace or within the community that are clearly defined with known solutions that can be implemented through existing organizational challenges and are usually solved by technocrats and subject matter experts who revert to the status quo. They can be found in siloed professions like engineering and planning. People then look to the leader for a solution because they are the experts. Adaptive challenges on the other hand, like institutional and structural racism, is embedded yet complex, unidentifiable and entrenched into our systems and beliefs.
There are five leadership behavioural characteristics that encompass adaptive leadership according to Heifetz. They are:
- Leaders seeing the big picture by getting on the balcony.
- Leaders must identify adaptive challenges which are usually value laden that can stir up emotions of racial trauma through a Black person’s lived experiences.
- Leaders must regulate distress by creating a holding environment where they must balance White comfort from the status quo and from racialized people who need to be given the psychological safety to address racial trauma from their lived experiences.
- Maintaining disciplined attention to know that the work is tough.
- Leaders must give the work back to the people to figure out by giving them the autonomy and space to work. Moving to racial equity means again listening to the marginalized voices and providing them to space to work towards a solution.
- Leaders must protect the voices from below, which means the community organizations who are on the front lines listening to the marginalized voices – those who are frequent passengers who reverse commuting or trip chaining, for example.
Adopting an adaptive leadership style underscores that leadership is not a trait or characteristic but it is a constant interaction between leaders and followers through multiple dimensions. It is about horizontal and vertical levels of trust within and outside the organization. Executive leaders must be able to trust what their employees are saying whether it is moving up the ladder to those leadership positions that are seemingly out of reach, or those who are making the policy decisions that have negatively affected passengers, such as fare inspectors who racially profile Black passengers.
Adaptive leadership is about mobilization where followers learn to adapt and do the work that is necessary. Transit leadership that requires the need to get to racial equity must set up the holding environment to achieve to facilitate that adaptive change. That is why those leaders who use an adaptive style are the most effective when focused on inclusion and equity. They are focused on hearing from diverse voices and backgrounds in order to achieve equity.
Local government agencies like transit and planning are coming to a reckoning due to the urgency in address Anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. A more diverse workforce coupled with changing times calls for an upheaval. This also requires a change in the approach organizations operate as well as the policy decisions they make. The TTC is one organization that is stepping up to the plate is moving towards racial equity as they are in the midst of developing their Anti-Racism Strategy.
Whatever direction the TTC will be going once the Strategy is adopted, it is important that the CEO and executive leaders use a different approach to organizational change that will reverberate throughout the agency. Executive leaders adapting to focus on the behavioural and relational interventions instead of just the technical decisions will allow for better and more thoughtful decision making down the road. Adaptive leadership is effective in addressing complex situations like racial equity and will hold executive leaders accountable in doing so.
I am hopeful that the exercise the TTC is going through will provide an opportunity for not just for other transit agencies to follow, but planning agencies as well. The status quo is unacceptable. Being an adaptive leader is the way to go.